Thursday, July 4, 2019

American Freedom and Christian Liberty

I’m taking a break from my normal publication schedule to make sure this article gets out on Independence Day itself. I have made a habit of saying that for Americans, Thanksgiving is our most religious holiday. That is certainly true, but we must never forget that today is also closely tied to faith. Christians who live in this country should be mindful of how our beliefs have shaped this nation and its liberties. We should also appreciate how those liberties protect our right to believe.

Religious Freedom in the Colonies

To do that, we first have to know why this land was colonized. It was not a simple matter of overpopulation or a desire for resources. A number of the colonies were specifically created in order to offer freedom from religious persecution in England. Congregationalists found it in Massachusetts. Quakers were protected in Pennsylvania, Baptists in Rhode Island, and the Catholics had Maryland. People came here in order to worship without fear. They valued liberty of conscience so much that they braved the deprivations of an unknown wilderness to find it.

Even in those colonies that were not chartered with the express purpose of offering relief to the persecuted, a religious character was an indelible part of the beginnings of their existence. Faith was a central element of identity in America. It was the shared undercurrent of all thought, the common foundation on which the fledgling society was built.

The commonality of religious character led to the formation of a national character, and in the quintessentially American way. In Europe, difference of opinion had been a cause of self-destructive conflict. The dangers of the New World, however, made such conflict too foolhardy to be borne. The similarities had to be magnified over the differences so that the mutual survival of the colonies could be assured. Cooperation and the finding of common ground became virtues. Does this mean that there were never religious disagreements, or that no group was ever marginalized by another? No, unfortunately. There were still failures. But this nation was where the world was able to begin to move forward from the sense of obligation to eliminate those who saw things another way.

America has always been a melting pot, and that began with religious toleration. Before ethnicity, nationality, or philosophy, the greatest point of difference was faith. The colonists found a way to appreciated one another rather than destroying each other over it. That first freedom became the basis for all others.

Developing the Logic of Liberty

The advance of liberty was not a random process, though. It is not as if it was some undefined mass that constantly expanded to absorb new freedoms. It occurred logically, and had a religious basis. Realities on the ground forced the colonists to see that religion was not a good reason for fighting, which led them to conclude that freedom of conscience was a human right. If God creates all human beings, then each human being’s response to the divine is between them and God. This basic acknowledgment has massive implications. If we are equal before the Lord in matters of faith, then where are we not equal? What gives a king the right to rule? Is he not also accountable to God? Can a government be just unless it sees its authority as coming from the protection of the common good, rather than existing to the benefit of the few?

Nor was this simply a product of the situation. It was, at last, the living out of the philosophy of Christ. Though sin had separated us from God and from one another, we had been created in the image of God and each of us still bears that mark of the sacred. Jesus came to save humanity and make them one family, not to put one group above another (Gal. 3:26–28; Eph. 2:14–22). Through our nature and through what the Lord did, each of us has equal dignity. No human being has the right to take that away or declare himself greater than it. Our equality before God is the source of all our rights. Without it, there can be no basis to condemn the strong for preying on the weak.

We find these concepts enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness….
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Jefferson’s words owe much to Lockean Social Contract Theory, but that philosophy itself was largely influenced by the idea that humans have a shared nature created by a higher power. And Americans, broadly speaking, were not united around a dry philosophical ideal. They gathered together around faith in God, in what He made mankind, and it what they were owed as a result. It was the source of their strength and courage in the conflict that eventually made us free.

True Freedom

We must never forget that Christianity has been the basis of our political freedom. But we must also remember that even America is only a shadow of true liberty. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, it was read publicly in cities throughout the new nation. Readings were often accompanied by the ringing of bells. Naturally, this included the bell of the building where the Declaration had been voted on. That bell is now called the Liberty Bell, but not primarily because of its connection to the events of 1776 in Philadelphia.

Rather, it is because of the inscription it bears. It reads,

Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof.

This is a quotation of Lev. 25:10. In the original context of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Mosaic law, this commandment had to do with the releasing of debts every 50 years. But it pointed to so much more than that. Almost 800 years later, Isaiah prophesied the words of a coming Savior who would say,

The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…. (Is. 61:1–2). 

Then, an additional 700 years after that, Jesus quoted this passage during a service at a synagogue. After finishing the reading, He said,

Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled. (Luke 4:21).

The statement in Leviticus, and the whole concept of the Jubilee, had been a symbol. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event for celebrating financial freedom. Isaiah showed that it was modeled on a higher purpose, a once-in-history event when the Lord would establish freedom for everyone in the world. And when Jesus fulfilled it, He proved what that freedom meant.

The great captor of human existence is not religious intolerance. It is not tyranny, poverty, or slavery. It is death. And the source of death is sin. In his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty of sin for us. In His resurrection, He defeated death completely. His gospel, then, is the greatest message of liberty that the world can hope to hear. For those who believe in Him, the power of death is broken. Its chains will not hold us. We are free, and will be free forever! All life centers around this marvelous news.

American liberty is, in some sense, a step back to Leviticus. It is highly valuable in its own right, but ultimately, it can only reflect and symbolize the more perfect freedom found in Christ. Also, however, it has made it easier to proclaim that higher freedom. The liberty and independence of the United States should be celebrated and defended for this reason above all others.

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